What a terrible thing it was that Joanne Yeates, the young landscape architect, was brutally strangled just before Christmas 2010. Our hearts surely went out to the grieving parents when they were on television. We must pray that the murderer will soon be found and punished.
However, I was upset by something else that happened in this case. I am well aware that the police have to do their job and need to follow up any leads. Also I know that not infrequently the murderer is someone close to the victim.
However, I remember watching the news when her landlord had been taken into custody. It was yet another case of trial by media. I said on more than one occasion as I watched: “A person is innocent until proved guilty.” But in the modern news-entertainment media some people are guilty until proved innocent. And that was the case over this suspect. Yes, he perhaps looked a little wild – I think he was an ex-professor!
The more I watched, the more uncomfortable I became. In one sense it made no difference whether he was actually innocent or guilty. He was being convicted anyway. Covering themselves legally with words like “alleged” the media were able to “entertain” the viewers by implying he was a “horrible fiend.”
In the old days it would just have been local people who might have assumed his guilt. That’s bad enough. But nowadays the whole country is likely to conclude he was guilty without trial. How devastating it must have been for him. I wonder how he is now. He’s dropped out of the news-entertainment spotlight because he was released without charge. Will he ever get over it?
I hate to think of people’s lives being ruined by false accusation and by conviction without trial. I’ve seen too much of it over the years.
Little wonder, therefore, Jesus and the apostles are clear about how we should respond to allegations or suspicions. According to the teaching of Jesus:
- We should not jump to conclusions about a person’s guilt, i.e. be judgmental. We should carefully suspend judgment and refuse to “convict” them without trial, even in conversation.
- We should directly approach someone who appears to have done wrong to hear their defence or explanation and to assess the truth.
This is the Christian approach and it means we avoid becoming slanderers. The Bible is quite blunt about slanderers. It says a slanderer is a fool (Proverbs 10:18) who will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:10) and who should be avoided (1 Corinthians 5:11).